“I've always been
mad, I know I've been mad, like
the most of us are.
Very hard to explain why you're mad, even
if you're not mad.” [backed by distant manic laughter]
Speak To Me, Dark Side of The Moon
There are so many stories about the Pink Floyd co-founder, original lead singer and songwriter, Syd Barrett, that it is often difficult to distinguish the myth from the reality. What is true is that the ‘madcap genius’ made a profound impact on modern music with his offbeat lyrics and innovative guitar techniques and was a key source of inspiration behind the legendary albums Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall. But beyond that ‘worldy success’, Barrett, the archetypal 60s acid casualty, touches something deep in many people’s psyche, perhaps because we feel that if things were just slightly different, we also would be lost to the world.
But let’s go back now to that moment in April 1968 when the other members of Pink Floyd decided that they had had enough of Barrett’s antics and had simply not gone to pick him up on the way to a concert at Southampton University. This led to Barrett leaving the group, followed shortly afterwards by Peter Jenner, from the band’s management, who decided to help produce Barrett’s first solo album The Madcap Laughs (3 January 1970; Harvest) at the famous Abbey Road Studios. However things didn’t go well from the start with Jenner eventually commenting that "I had seriously underestimated the difficulties of working with him...”, which included Barrett suddenly stopping the recording sessions to take a drive around the UK in his mini. His journey at that time ended up in a Cambridgeshire psychiatric unit.
One year later Barrett was back in the studio, reportedly with his 1960s Fender Telecaster, Robert Wyatt from Soft Machine and a second producer Malcolm Jones, to give it another go. But shortly afterwards Barrett decided he had had enough and told his flatmate that he was going ‘for an afternoon drive’. On that occasion he finished up in Ibiza with members of Pink Floyd, and took advantage of the moment to ask his friend Dave Gilmour, who had replaced him in the band, to take over production of his debut album. Shortly afterwards Roger Waters also became a member of the production team and together they worked on the bulk of the sessions between April and July 1969.
It is fair to say that The Madcap Laughs is a mixed bag, but if you are open to listening to an album containing mistakes and bearing a man’s vulnerabilities, then you will find musical gems that will never leave you. Terrapin for example can send you into a trance with its stream-of-consciousness lyrics, while the wonderful Octopus, released as a single in November 1969, feels at times like it as at the point of collapse, and consequently is full of psychedelic charm. Love You contains a cheerful melody with bar-room piano accompaniment, whereas Dark Globe, with its dramatic acoustic guitar strumming, hauntingly details Barrett’s own mental decline: “won’t you miss me, wouldn’t you miss me at all?” he sings plaintively.
Golden Hair, inspired by James Joyce’s writings, is another lyrical jewel backed up by acoustic guitar strumming. However the record closes with the rather flat and chaotic sounding Late Night, which again refers to Barrett’s feelings of isolation.
The Madcap Laughs almost immediately sold 20,000 copies and hit the top 40 in the UK, which was sufficient for Barrett’s record company to sponsor a follow-up album, Barrett. However during his first solo concert to promote that record the ‘crazy diamond’ abruptly stood up and walked off stage, as he did a few years later in January 1973, this time never to return.
Syd Barrett was not much different to any of us when he decided one fine day in the late 1960s to go ‘for an afternoon drive’. The main difference is that the great man never really came back.